Bill would promote small-donor elections
As the legislative session draws to an end, Oregon lawmakers have a choice: allow large campaign donations to continue dominating our political system or make history by passing state campaign contribution limits for the first time in a generation.
This would be a critical first step toward limiting the influence of big money in politics.
And yet campaign contribution limits alone won't change the central influence of money in the political process.
The proposed campaign limits are well beyond what most Oregonians can afford: $2,800 for statewide elections, $1,500 for state Senate campaigns, and $1,000 for state House races per election. Few working people will be making maximum contributions to candidates if the limits go into effect.
That means candidates will continue focusing their fundraising on the big money. Yes, they'll have to stop taking six- and seven-digit donations, but they'll remain focused on the usual big donors.
We can do better than that and give voters a greater say in our elections by using a limited amount of public matching funds so that the small contributions of constituents matter more than the big contributions of the wealthiest donors and special interests.
States like Maine and Connecticut, and local communities including Seattle and Portland, use some public funding to ensure that voters own our elections.
Voice for All Oregon — a coalition representing good-government groups, small businesses and communities of color — has a proposal in the Legislature that fits Oregon. House Bill 3004 would establish a small-donor elections system for state Senate and House seats, incentivizing candidates to run for office without any big money support. In exchange for accepting no more than $250 from anyone, the small contributions they receive from their own constituents would then be matched 6-to-1.
Small donor elections would be a game changer. When a donation of $25 from an Oregon resident becomes $175, and a contribution of $200 becomes $1,400, candidates have an incentive to spend time meeting us where we are — the Jade International Night Market, cultural festivals, school socials and house potlucks, rather than focusing on $1,000-per-plate receptions with out-of-state lobbyists who don't always share our values. Small-donor elections also increase the diversity of community members who donate, giving a greater voice to those who are excluded from our current system.
Equally important, small-donor elections change who can run for office. A system with no campaign contribution limits, or limits that are out of reach for average Oregonians, inherently favors incumbents who, like their donors, skew white, male and affluent.
In contrast, small-donor elections break down the barriers that money creates so that candidates can reflect the rich geographic, racial, gender and economic diversity of our state.
As directors of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), we lead a statewide, grassroots organization that works with progressive Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to advance social justice. Providing the ability for Oregonians of color to have an equal opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice, or to run for public office and represent their values, is an essential component of having our perspectives heard.
Oregon is facing new challenges and having a diversity of perspectives is needed to find policy solutions that work for all of us.
The campaign contribution limits currently under debate would be much more meaningful when paired with a small donor elections system. As we reduce the power of big money in campaigns, we should make a commitment to ensure that everyone's voice can be heard in our government.
Chi Nguyen is the APANO executive director and Robin Ye is the political director
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